23 April 2019
Areas marked black on the map represent those with the least press freedom among the 180 countries and regions covered by the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. Photo: RSF
Areas marked black on the map represent those with the least press freedom among the 180 countries and regions covered by the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. Photo: RSF

Press freedom in Hong Kong is hanging by a thread

According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published recently by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong is down four places to 73rd among 180 countries and regions that were studied.

In fact, Hong Kong is ranked even lower than some of the former Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary (71st) and several former Soviet Union republics like Estonia (12th), Latvia (28th ) and Lithuania (36th).

When the World Press Freedom Index was introduced in 2002, Hong Kong was ranked 18th. However, since then, its ranking has continued to fall year after year, indicating that press freedom has witnessed a significant deterioration over the past 15 years.

Among the five countries and regions whose populations are predominantly Chinese (with the exception of Malaysia), Taiwan is up six places to 45th this year, the highest among them, while Malaysia is up three places to 144th, and Singapore is also up three places to 151st.

China remains unchanged at 176th.

Taiwan has not only outstripped all other Chinese societies in terms of press freedom but has also, rather surprisingly, taken the lead over South Korea (63) and Japan (72) by a significant margin. No wonder, the RSF has recently moved its Asian headquarters to Taipei.

The results of the RSF Index this year once again illustrates a fact that the degree of press freedom of a country is not necessarily in direct proportion to its economic growth.

For example, although Singapore, Malaysia and China have all seen rapid GDP growth over the past decade, their press freedom rankings have remained very low compared with other developed countries.

China, in particular, has seen a significant deterioration in press freedom in recent years although it has already been the world’s second largest economy since 2011.

In the meantime, even though the GDP per capita of Hong Kong (US$43,000) is almost twice that of Taiwan (US$22,000), the former is ranked 28 places behind.

Another clear example is Singapore.The country has the highest GDP per capita compared with all other Chinese societies (US$53,000) but it has been notorious for its strict media censorship.

As a result, Singapore has remained among the top 30 poorest performing countries in the world when it comes to upholding press freedom, according to the RSF findings.

Apart from Reporters Sans Frontières, some other world-renowned international institutions have also published their own indices on global press freedom regularly. For example, the Heritage Foundation based in Washington has recently announced its world press freedom index.

The top 10 countries with the most press freedom, as expected, are mostly western democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands.

In contrast, the top 10 countries with the least press freedom according to the Heritage Foundation index are almost without exception totalitarian states governed by one-party dictatorship. For instance, North Korea comes at the bottom of the rankings, while China is ranked fifth to last, Vietnam sixth to last, Cuba eighth to last and Laos 11th to last.

It is by no means coincidental that countries with the most press freedom are almost always western democracies.

These countries have a definite advantage over Third World countries in terms of social and political systems: namely, judicial independence, the rule of law, a firmly established democratic system, individual freedom guaranteed under their constitutions, general respect for human rights and a mature civil society.

These are the decisive elements that are instrumental in upholding press freedom in any society. Unfortunately, they are usually the missing features in countries governed by one-party dictatorship, hence their lack of press freedom.

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, its deteriorating press freedom can be largely attributed to external factors such as the escalating political interference from Beijing, as well as internal factors like self-censorship of local media and harassment and intimidation of journalists by ultra-leftist groups.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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